Comans: Teacher Bonuses: A Case of Haves vs. Have-Nots

By James Comans, editor at MSEDBLOG

This week, teachers across the state will receive bonuses for test scores earned during the 2015-2016 school year. The bonuses are part of the Legislature’s “School Recognition Program,” in which A-rated schools receive $100 per student, which is then divided among the teachers. Schools which increased a letter grade also receive $100 per student, and B-rated schools receive $75. Administrators cannot receive funds.

The money is well deserved. As Mississippi teachers, we have worked hard to increase student achievement, and we have done so with some of the lowest salaries in the nation, in chronically under-funded schools. But then again, so have thousands of Mississippi teachers who will not be receiving any bonuses any time soon. When you understand what those teachers are truly up against, you start to wonder what the purpose of these teacher bonuses really is.

The School Recognition Program is a merit pay experiment, said to reward teachers who are doing an excellent job in the classroom. But the jury is still out: There is no evidence that a reward system actually improves educational outcomes. It has been tried other places and it has failed to live up to the promises of merit pay advocates. So why do we think such a program will improve education in Mississippi?

And what about the students? They’re the ones who bust tail to make gains. In high school, passing scores are required for graduation. But at the elementary and middle school levels, the assessments don’t affect the students’ futures at all. Do their efforts secure them textbooks they can actually take home to read? Science lab materials the legislature won’t otherwise allocate for them? Will making growth patch leaky roofs or get them smaller classes? No? Then I suppose they’re just toiling away to help their teachers pay off credit card bills, huh?

And then there’s the fact that the bonuses will disproportionately benefit teachers at schools in wealthy areas of the state. Of the 88 “A-rated” schools for the 2015-2016 school year, 65 (74%) were in the 10 wealthiest counties of the state. If a teacher wanted the most reward for a career of hard work, she should move to a place with steady bonuses- most likely from reliably high test scores. There are only so many bonuses that can be gained from even remarkable growth, in a five-tiered system. If the Legislalture continues to target bonuses at schools that have proven to earn perennially high marks, they will be incentivizing a mass migration toward richer school districts.Teachers with the means to relocate will gravitate toward school districts more likely to issue bonuses. The jobs will become more competitive in those places, and as a result, principals in wealthy school districts will have their pick of the best teachers, while principals in struggling schools will scramble just to fill classrooms with warm bodies. The rich will get richer; the poor will get left in the dust.

Let me give you an example of how this works against us: Mississippi’s largest school district sits just across the border from Memphis, where every DeSoto teacher could earn a raise for a longer morning commute. Many do. In some cases, Mississippi teachers earn $12,000 more, for the price of a Tennessee license and a U Haul truck. And who can blame them?

Perhaps this is an attractive scenario for well-off Mississippians with enough privilege and wealth to take advantage of it. But for scores of Mississippi’s under-served and at-risk students, I fear this program will amount to abandonment and de facto economic segregation. Mississippi already faces a once-in-a-lifetime critical teacher shortage which the Legislature refuses to address. Given enough time with this “School Recognition Program,” areas of the state already struggling to stay afloat will sink even further, and any hope of a bright economic future will be lost for thousands of Mississippi children. This is a full-blown economic crisis, and we need to treat it that way.

While we appreciate the recognition and the added money, our profession really doesn’t need spontaneous bonuses or other pat-on-the-head gestures to improve educational outcomes. And our Legislature doesn’t need to pull the best Mississippi teachers away from the students who need them the most.

We need adequately-funded schools. We need competitive salaries with other states around us. We need to attract the best and brightest teachers from across the region to help lift our kids up, in the best public school system in the South.

Mississippi’s economic future depends on it.

We need our Legislature to act like it.

James Comans is an 8th grade science teacher in Southaven and contributor to MSEdBlog. His views are his own and do not represent the views of any other entity.

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